New legacies: The Chills' late harvest

Martin Phillipps, big in Latvia and back on the road in New Zealand with The Chills. Photos:...
Martin Phillipps, big in Latvia and back on the road in New Zealand with The Chills. Photos: Supplied
Three albums into The Chills’ comeback, Martin Phillipps says he feels like he can finally relax a bit. Tom McKinlay reports.

Contemporaries of Chills frontman Martin Phillipps are experiencing something of a purple patch.

Witness the critical reception of the Psychedelic Furs’ new album, Made of Rain. Pitchfork said it ranked "just a notch or two below post-punk classics like 1981’s Talk Talk Talk and 1982’s Forever Now".

Then there’s influential British early post-punkers Wire. If their recent album Mind Hive were released by a new band, the music press would be doing their nut over it, a Guardian reviewer wrote.

And perhaps least likely of all, Pete Perrett, of Only Ones fame, has re-emerged with a brace of well reviewed new records.

"Long may the late flowering of Perrett continue," said one.

The cover art for Scatterbrain was produced by David Costa, who was 
...
The cover art for Scatterbrain was produced by David Costa, who was responsible for classic album covers such as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, for Elton John, and Night at the Opera, for Queen. Martin Phillipps says Costa worked on the Chills cover as a result of a record label connection. The label had just reissued an album by Costa’s band, Trees. ‘‘And he offered to do one cover art for one band and luckily we got it,’’ Phillipps says. ‘‘He did a fantastic job.’’ The album is out on May 14
And then there’s Phillipps. Early comment on his new disc, Scatterbrain, out soon, is comparing it with Submarine Bells, his 1990 highwater mark.

His last album, Snow Bound, just a couple of years back, was similarly welcomed.

"Just glorious," concluded one pundit.

So, what’s with all these middle-aged alt-crowd pop-rockers fronting up with all this good work, flowering late?

Not uncharacteristically, Phillipps has a couple of thoughts.

"I saw a similar thing happen in, I think it was, the early ’90s when, frankly, a lot of artists had been putting out some pretty mediocre stuff."

These were people who were big in the ’60s and early ’70s and for whom the ’80s wasn’t a great time. Then as the decade closed the likes of Bob Dylan recorded Oh Mercy, Lou Reed released New York and in the early ’90s Buffy Sainte-Marie was back — all of them closing on or eclipsing 50.

"I think there is a stage of life when it becomes important again," Phillipps says.

"So they put a bit more effort in, or maybe they have got older and wiser and actually have something to say again."

Economics is in there too nowadays, he says. Streaming having drained the "royal" from royalty cheques, any number of artists find they need to "come up with some quality goods to sell".

Phillipps’ narrative, and that of The Chills, has something in common with the rock’n’roll tropes traversed by some of those others, but of course its own twists, turns and emphases too.

Indeed, the story of how Martin Phillipps, the leather-jacketed, heavenly pop-song singing, pink-frost spangled standard bearer of Dunedin indie rose and fell and rose to bud again is now well documented. There was a documentary: The Chills: The Triumph & Tragedy of Martin Phillipps.

It followed close on the heels of Snow Bound, further awakening a somnolent but apparently ready affection.

"Since The Chills’ renaissance, so to speak, this is the third good quality record, and it was important to me to bring our legacy up to date. Not be known as the band who had a number of hits in the ’80s," Phillipps says of these eventful past few years.

"I’m feeling good about that now, you know? Even if some of the old fans haven’t really checked out the new stuff — but a lot of people have and I think the word is starting to spread. I can almost relax a bit now."

The Chills (from left) Callum Hampton (bass, brass and backing vocals), Todd Knudson (drums and...
The Chills (from left) Callum Hampton (bass, brass and backing vocals), Todd Knudson (drums and backing vocals), Oli Wilson (keyboards and backing vocals), Erica Scally (guitar, keyboards, violin and backing vocals), Martin Phillipps (guitar and vocals).
Relaxing a bit also played a part in putting Scatterbrain together.

The Chills line-up has been pretty settled for a while now and includes some serious musical chops. Keyboard player Dr Oli Wilson’s day job is at Massey University’s music school, Erica Scally brings not only violin, but guitar, keyboards and backing vocals to the mix, while long-time live-wire drummer Todd Knudson and new boy bassist Callum Hampton provide the locked-down rhythms Phillipps’ tightly reined intensity requires.

The frontman says that means he can now step back a bit and allow them to work their magic.

"That is what happened on Scatterbrain more than on any other album.

"I was still writing the album while we were recording it, so I was able to go away and continue writing and trust the band to work wonders and they did."

Wilson and Scally in particular get plaudits for contributing arrangements — a point of contention in that doco, in which the younger Phillipps was painted as a bit of a micro-manager.

Phillipps shrugs. It was film-making, and if he came off as a slightly more villainous character than was genuinely warranted it made for a better movie, he says.

But there have been lessons, reassessments.

In new single Destiny, he concedes to being "autarkic on the mend".

"I only discovered that word when I was in my thesaurus looking for alternatives to dictator and things like that," he says.

"That’s a wee nudge and a wink to the movie, and what I learned about myself from watching that."

The whole autarky thing is acknowledged again on the cover art, up in the right hand corner, where the word sits with its definition.

Another contributor to the album’s final shape was Covid. The band was just four days from completing recording when the lockdown order came. It initiated several months of sending sound files back and forth to Auckland-based producer Tom Healy, fine tuning.

In the end, the album benefited, Phillipps says.

"It is a two-sided thing because it interrupted the flow as well. We were working well in the studio.

"Prolonging it like that there was a risk of it starting to feel a bit stale. We could have overworked it and made mistakes, but I think it worked out really well.

"For a start there was not the unity to the sound over the whole album that there is now."

People are saying it’s now the best produced of any of their albums, he says.

As for the songs themselves, they, to an extent, continue the work of the documentary.

A quote being used to spruik the new record is pulled from a review for the doco: "It’s about artistic integrity, self-realisation, self-acceptance and a reflection on mortality".

Scatterbrain is there or thereabouts, although it could have gone somewhere else.

"There were three other tracks that were completed and left off the record and coincidentally they were the first ones I had written for the album," Phillipps says.

They were off in a different sort of direction. There was, for example, a song about excessive consumerisation — that modern affliction was going to get a serve, for a start.

"It just felt like I was trying to tell people the obvious, and a couple of people made the comment that particularly these days, at this age the stuff of mine that connects with people most is the personal stuff because the more I pull from within the more people can relate to that, something honest that they may also be experiencing.

"Once that decision was made, the rest of the album started falling into place, really."

Which is not to say it was an easy album to make, by any means, he says.

"It was quite an emotional effort.

"Usually I find once I have finished, it can be some years before I can look back and see what I actually said and be quite surprised by how much I revealed. It is too raw and too close to me to be able to really see what other people instantly see."

One of the songs that survived from that earlier songwriting phase is drum-beating opener Monolith, which sets about making a more universal observation.

"As with a lot of my songs I write a lot of lyrics and then whittle them down, so I know there was heaps more about specifically what that song was about."

Which was the value of ancestral knowledge and ancient wisdom and the folly of ignoring it, he explains.

"It just seemed the more I trimmed it down and left it to people to interpret their own way, the better the song became. It is pretty bare but it works."

And, indeed, the line "Give me the power of ancient stones, honour the monolith" gets a pretty good workout, chant-like.

The same winnowing approach was applied as the material became more personal.

"Caught in my eye, about the death of my mother, that was an example where in the initial lyrics there were a number of references to characteristics of hers and so on. But it just seemed better that ... you know, there is hardly a week goes by when somebody my age group doesn’t announce on Facebook the death of a parent. It made more sense to generalise it.

"It is something I don’t think I used to consider very much but I think now that works. It is working for my writing style at the moment anyway."

The sober reflections on time passing continue into other tracks.

Hourglass begins with the observation "Dark times nothing left to say ..."

"It is becoming more apparent that creative types like myself, we often struggle with dark periods and I just hadn’t really addressed it before, how serious it was. Especially as an ongoing thing," Phillipps says.

"Bear in mind that this was all written before Covid happened and lockdown, but it was with a growing awareness that I am living alone and probably will be forever now, that sort of thing. An assessment of where I am in my life now and sometimes glimpse some dark patches. I guess I found that music saves the day and making my own music even more so. So, that’s all part of what was being addressed."

Musically, The Chills sound like themselves, something Phillipps says people are noticing.

"It appears now we have reached the stage where people hear a song come on the radio overseas and they will know it is The Chills, straight away. So, we are a band that actually has its own sound now, which is something I am really proud of."

The nature of the data stream means Phillipps knows a little more about those listeners too.

"It is quite weird. One of the only good things about streaming is that you get pretty accurate reports coming in quite soon about where your songs are being listened to, and we just found out we are quite big in Latvia.

"And I have just had to do a wee interview for Croatia as well. It’s really interesting where the music is going to."

As far as having a distinctive sound goes, Phillipps says he recognises himself that there are connections and lineages between and among his songs.

He nominates Night of Chill Blue, Pink Frost and House With A Hundred Rooms as sharing an aesthetic.

"There’s definitely a thread that goes through those. So sometimes I dip back into that particular pool to see if there is something new and fresh. In a way the music part of Hourglass reminds me of Effloresce and Deliquesce a bit, it is not a million miles away.

"Those things happen. But also, fundamentally I am a pretty basic musician. I still don’t know my scales and chords and changing keys and that sort of stuff. I have a pretty limited writing palette and I am still torn between whether I should expand on that and perhaps lose my unique style, or whether by adding to it I will suddenly discover new ways of doing things. So I learn a wee bit every once in a while, but that is also why certain themes go back years."

What comes next is a wee bit up in the air. Australia is a touring possibility. Further afield is trickier.

In December, the band filmed a concert in New Plymouth, which is available to stream, Worlds Within Worlds: The Chills Live From New Zealand.

"That is for our overseas fans in particular," Phillipps says.

Then there’s the question of whether there’s more yet. Further buds to cultivate.

"I felt quite drained after this album and you are sort of ‘Oh, never going to write again’," he says.

"I keep a note pad beside me when I am watching TV or on the computer and just over the past week I have started coming up with ideas that are actually worthy of writing down. Little suggestions and things. So, again, here goes the process. It starts up again whether you want it to or not. It is exciting."

Touring

The Chills head out of tour, starting at the Oamaru Club on Friday. Then sold out gigs in the Dunedin Arts Festival and Wanaka Festival of Colour.

Scatterbrain is out on May 14 - they play with The Bats in Auckland that night.

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